Donald Trump complained of unfair treatment in a defiant and rambling performance on the witness stand on Monday, prompting the judge overseeing his New York civil business fraud trial to threaten to cut his testimony short.
Under questioning about his company's accounting practices, Trump repeatedly clashed with Judge Arthur Engoron, who is weighing whether to impose hundreds of millions of dollars in fines and other penalties that could hobble the real estate empire that vaulted Trump to prominence.
Engoron warned the former U.S. president, who's running for office again in 2024 as a Republican, that he might remove him from the witness stand if he did not answer questions directly.
"Mr. Kise, can you control your client?" Engoron asked Trump lawyer Christopher Kise. "This is not a political rally. This is a courtroom."
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While on the stand for roughly three-and-a-half hours, Trump acknowledged that his company did not provide accurate estimates of the value of apartment towers, golf courses and other assets. New York state lawyers said those values were pumped up to win better financing terms, and Engoron has already ruled that they were fraudulent.
But Trump said many of them, such as his Mar-a-Lago estate and Doral golf course in Florida, were undervalued and that banks did not take the valuations seriously.
"It wasn't important. You've made it important, but it wasn't," Trump said of the estimates.
New York state lawyers argue those methods enabled him to win favourable financing terms by pumping up the value of his golf courses, apartment towers and other assets at a time when many lenders refused to do business with him. They say such activity earned him $100 million US and exaggerated his wealth by $2 billion.
Trump, 77, has denied wrongdoing, but the judge in the case ruled in a partial summary judgment before testimony even started that the Trump Organization had submitted "fraudulent valuations." The weeks-long trial will determine judgments on six other counts, the scope of damages and the future of the corporation in New York state, though any verdict will be appealed.
'I'm sure the judge will rule against me'
Before entering the courtroom on Monday, Trump complained to reporters about what he characterized as "an unfair situation" and a politically motivated prosecution. The current case, as well as the four criminal prosecutions he faces, result from investigations that predate Trump's announcement in November 2022 that he would run again for president as a Republican.
Trump's complaints extended to the witness stand, where he accused legal authorities of paying unduly close attention to his business after he won the 2016 presidential election.
"I'm sure the judge will rule against me because he always rules against me," he said.
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More drama outside the courtroom
The judge's move to keep Trump's testimony on track prompted another of his lawyers to object outside the courtroom during the lunch break.
"Everyone has the right in this country to get up and put [out] a defence," lawyer Alina Habba said. "But I was told to sit down today," she said, while accusing the judge of yelling and slamming a table.
There were no cameras allowed inside the courtroom. There were two overflow rooms in the courthouse packed with observers.
On the first break from his testimony, Trump was silent in response to a reporter's question, making a gesture to demonstrate his lips were sealed.
New York Attorney General Letitia James is seeking $250 million in fines, as well as restrictions that would prevent Trump and his sons, Eric and Donald Jr., from doing business in their home state.
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Featured VideoNew York Attorney General Letitia James described the behaviour of former U.S. president Donald Trump at his civil business fraud trial on Monday. 'I will not be bullied, I will not be harassed, this case will go on,' said James, who is seeking $250 million in fines and business restrictions as penalties.
"He rambled. He hurled insults. But we expected that," James said outside the courthouse after proceedings ended for the day. "At the end of the day, the documentary evidence demonstrated that, in fact, he falsely inflated his assets to basically enrich himself and his family."
Trump took a swipe at the attorney general during his testimony, calling her a "political hack." James later said outside the courthouse that he was "engaging in distractions, and engaging in name-calling."
Last week, Trump's sons each testified that the organization relied on accountants and lawyers to verify the accuracy of financial documents that Engoron has ruled to be fraudulent.
Gag order violations
Trump has accumulated fines of $15,000 US during the trial for twice violating a limited gag order that prevents him from criticizing court staff. His lawyers have chafed at that order and indicated they might use it as the basis for an appeal, but Engoron expanded it on Friday to cover them as well.
Unlike the four criminal cases Trump faces, this civil trial does not threaten to put him in prison as he mounts another presidential campaign. Indeed, Trump has been leaning into the experience, using it to solicit campaign donations and argue that he is being targeted for his political views.
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The trial was originally scheduled to run through early December but could wrap up sooner as the state calls its final witnesses this week. It is unclear how many witnesses the defence will call.
Trump's daughter Ivanka is due to testify on Wednesday, although she is not among the defendants in the case.
With files from CBC News
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